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Summertime Rumbas

A GIRL WITH A MONKEY; New and Selected Stories By Leonard Michaels; Mercury House: 240 pp., $14.95 paper

March 26, 2000|WYATT MASON | Wyatt Mason is the translator of "Masters and Servants," five novellas by French writer Pierre Michon

Leonard Michaels is a writer who, in marketing mode, a publisher might call "a modern master of the short story" hoping that the suggestible shopper, massaged by alliteration and sibilance, would be aroused into laying down 20 bucks. But Michaels' prose--early, middle or late--is felicitous and recognizably his own and should require no salesman-like platitudes. Author of such books as "The Men's Club," "A Cat" and "Sylvia," Michaels can distill the familiar into the essential, with an economy and lyricism that distinguishes him from his peers. Witness this epiphanic moment from a man's life in "Going Places":

"Thus, delivering the can, he delivered himself, grabbed life in the loop and hoisted it like a gallon of his own blood, swinging it out like a mighty bowler into the future. Concrete floor, towering walls, steeping light hosannaed while Beckman's arm stiffened and shuddered from wrist to mooring tendons in his neck as he held the stance, leaned with the heavy can like an allegorical statue: Man Reaching."

Naturally, short story form requires more of its practitioners than merely the beautiful, rhythmical turns of phrase that predominate in Michaels' work. Short fiction is about what is left out and, because of it, what remains. "A Girl With a Monkey"--which plunders two out-of-print collections (1969's "Going Places" and 1975's "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could") for 11 of its stories, and is rounded out by five new pieces--is chockablock with a marvelous range of leavings. Perhaps Michaels' best-known story, "Murderers" (1975), compresses a Joycean reality of experience (of Jewish '50s Brooklyn) into four pages, as a group of boys on a rooftop randily observe a rabbi and his wife dancing the rumba and having sex in their apartment. "Viva la Tropicana," a new story of startlingly different scope than many of Michaels' other tales, reads like a road picture in the best sense: dialogue crackles, out-sized characters surprise and an international intrigue MacGuffin looms, the sort of thing Elmore Leonard takes a novel to do, but not as well as Michaels manages here, in 30 taut pages.

Michaels' mode isn't only that of compression--and that is what is most notable about these pieces; their structural variety and vitality are also conspicuous. This preoccupation with structure is on display in two stories written several years apart--"Honeymoon" and "Second Honeymoon." They function as a diptych: a busboy's summer in a borscht belt hotel, twice told, offering a fascinating window into the world of authorial choices.

Throughout these tales, Michaels' thematic core is the human heart and what it feels, particularly the troubles that stem from an exposure to other hearts. One might call this predicament love. And while this amorous terrain has been traveled like a literary gold rush route of late, the uniqueness that Michaels brings to it is a euphonious prose to be sure, a structural vigor and, most fundamentally, an edgy sense of humor that is all his own. Aristotle defined comedy as stories in which the characters are better off at the end than they were at the beginning, whereas in tragedy it's the other way around; in Michaels' stories, we always tread the line.

In his introduction, Michaels writes that he has been "more concerned with form than anything else," form as defined by how you tell a story so that it works, how many ways there are to do that and his occasional uneasiness with such a focus: "I sometimes wondered if my interest in form wasn't self-indulgent, or worse yet, bourgeois . . .." Despite that unease, his achievement is certain: "A Girl with A Monkey" takes the reader on a beguiling journey through a disarming range of vividly human evocations.

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